The Volcano and After: Selected and New Poems 2002-2019
By Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press,
214 pp., $30
Alicia Ostriker’s new collection comprises selected poems from seven previous volumes. Ostriker has been an important poet for the past 45 years. Born in Brooklyn, she has published 15 books of poetry and many more of criticism, all elevating the voices of women and their lived experiences. She is one of the most Jewish of poets, not only as a cultural Jew but, far rarer, as a Jewish poet steeped in Jewish religion and tradition and committed to making it more relevant to women.
The 2002 “Volcano Sequence,” which begins the collection, is a series of powerful poems about her relationship with her mother. How many poems we write about our mothers as the years grind on, trying to sort out the gifts and the curses, the smothering and the longing. These poems feel raw and honest, but always well crafted.
Mom, reach into
your barrel of scum-coated blessings.
Find me one.
Ostriker speaks in the preface of being frightened by these poems; this echoes my own experience. When I write poems about very difficult, even forbidden, subjects, I tell myself that I will never publish them—that gives me the space to write that dangerous poem. Often those poems are among the best that one writes and the ones that speak most strongly to others. But daring to write them requires a lot of determination. This section feels like that.
There are also poems, such as “I Decide to Call You Being,” addressed to Hashem, or the divine—poems of questing for spirituality rather than achieving it. “The Unmasking,” a poem that serves as a foreword to the book, is likewise addressed to Hashem: It demands that he/she show his/her real Being to her and to all. Ostriker’s relationship to the Eternal is as fraught as her relationship to her mother, and she seeks clarity in both—what the rabbi and political activist Arthur Waskow, alluding to Jacob’s battle with the angel, has described in his books as Godwrestling.
Most of the poems in this volume are focused on daily life, human loves and disasters, or the city, in this case New York. As the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy saw Alexandria as The City, so Ostriker views New York in all its grime and glory. She is overtly concerned with aging, the changes in her body, her friendships, her loves, her living circumstances. Poems about aging, though, are primarily of interest to those who are aging. This is a long-ish collection—214 pages—and unfortunately, the University of Pittsburgh Press kept down the cost by using small print. This was not the smartest choice of font. I had to place the book under strong light and rest my eyes rather often.
Ostriker wrestles too with America as it is, was, will be. She eloquently decries our constant plunging into war after war, with more political poems as we get to the more recent volumes. The last poems are a response to Trump’s election and the Women’s March. Writing successful political poems takes as much or more craft than writing poems about the subway or spring. There is so much more to be angry about in our recent history and now. I am moved by the poems with passion in them, and many of these poems have it abundantly. I vastly prefer them to the ekphrastic poems, in which Ostriker responds to works of art; I find poems about paintings off-putting when the reader doesn’t have the painting to look at. The second section, “No Heaven,” feels a bit slack compared to what comes before it in the volume and what follows.
Older women in our society are both invisible and inaudible because of the worship of youth. Many of these poems give voice to the experiences and thoughts of elderly women in a way that is rarely encountered.
In “The Book of Seventy,” the third section, the poet begins to consider her own aging and what it means to her. That culminates in the last section, “Approaching Eighty.” There she also considers, in a sequence of five poems, Eleanor Roosevelt—her appearance, her life, her work, her politics, her continued commitment to liberty and justice and her ability to create politically in her old age. Obviously, Roosevelt is an inspiration to Ostriker, who also frequently mentions Walt Whitman, for whom New York was as important as it is to her. Older women in our society are both invisible and inaudible because of the worship of youth. Many of these poems give voice to the experiences and thoughts of elderly women in a way that is rarely encountered.
Unlike in The Book of Life, her 2012 collection, which was strongly and profoundly Jewish, Ostriker’s relationship to Judaism is not front and center here, although it underlies many of the poems. The Shekhinah—the female aspect of the Eternal—is invoked more as we move to works from the later volumes. Like many of us, Ostriker wants to experience a more female side of Judaism and, also like many of us, finds Kabbalah useful in placing ourselves in the tradition.
One of the organizing elements of the volume is the quest for this strong female presence: by invoking the Shekhinah, by remembering the warm side of her mother (as when she refused to pull weeds, since all living things have a right to thrive), and by writing about women she admires, such as Roosevelt, the women who marched for reproductive freedom, Diana the Huntress and Gaia herself, our earth mother. In the section drawn from her collection The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog, every poem creates an experience of the world as it appears to each of these three: human, vegetable life and an animal other than human. There’s a humorous aspect to some of these poems not common in the rest. It is marvelously imaginative to see the world as a dark red tulip or a pet dog might. Ostriker is still working away to tell her truth. As she writes in “Ars Poetica”:
What you fear to say
turns to poison in your body…
so breathe in reality
breathe out truth
if you can – if you can
manage to find words.
And she still does.
Marge Piercy has published 19 books of poetry, most recently On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light; 17 novels; a short story collection, The Cost of Lunch; a memoir, Sleeping with Cats; and four nonfiction books.